In one sense, it hurts to consider God’s Pocket in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death. The movie offers another sobering reminder of the enormous talent we lost in February, starkly portraying Hoffman’s unparalleled gift for empathizing with everyman characters and their problems.
At the same time, this can be a cathartic experience, a chance to continue reclaiming Hoffman’s story from the sordid headlines that accompanied his death while appreciating a master at work for one of the final times. That’s a welcome opportunity, and it makes the picture worth watching despite some significant flaws and the fact that it’s hardly Hoffman’s best.
The feature filmmaking debut of Mad Men actor John Slattery, God’s Pocket represents a welcome return to the sort of neighborhood-driven realism mastered by John Cassavetes, Martin Scorsese and other luminaries. It has a big, talented cast headlined by Hoffman and a strong sense of place in its portrait of the titular blue collar Philadelphia neighborhood.
It is, however, a tonal mess, wildly vacillating between dark comedy, sincere drama and a sort of slapdash weirdness that plays like a demented sitcom. Slattery’s ambitions never quite pan out, despite many strong suits, not the least of which is the way cinematographer Lance Accord evokes a long tradition of quality urban cinema in his capturing of the faded homes, rundown bars and grim yellows and browns that define this depressed milieu.
Hoffman plays Mickey Scarpato, an outsider who married the neighborhood’s resident beauty Jeanie (Christina Hendricks). After her racist, drug-addicted son (Caleb Landry Jones) dies in a work accident of sorts, Mickey is left to clean up the mess while disguising the truth from Jeanie. This involves a lot of interactions with sordid oddballs, played by great character actors ranging from Eddie Marsan to Richard Jenkins, scenes spent at hardscrabble businesses and in the tired streets, and a general sense of comic desperation.
Again, this is really a movie to see for Hoffman. It’s yet another impressive performance, in which the all-time great fills a character written as a sad sack with a considerable degree of empathy and human interest. He communicates volumes of personal history and feeling in small gestures, weary sighs and the sense that every waking moment is a serious struggle. There are certainly pleasures to be had in watching him act alongside the aforementioned co-stars and John Turturro. Slattery couldn’t have cast the picture better.
The film is so ambitious, with such wide-ranging intentions, that it suffers from a persistently scattershot quality. It’s a character drama, a community piece about a neighborhood stuck in a time warp, a satirical look at the American Dream as it suffers its last, fateful gasp. There are scenes that purposefully go nowhere, stopping the narrative to stress relatively small and insignificant details about this setting shared by honest workers and petty thieves, expressing Slattery’s love for the neighborhood but coming to seem like moments that were more interesting and impactful on paper.
Slattery deserves credit for taking on such a complicated project for his feature directing debut, and the movie can’t be easily categorized. It has a free-flowing naturalistic sensibility that is enhanced by a tangible sense of isolation. The neighborhood is a character itself, feeling like an open-air prison as the grit and grime practically seep off the screen. It’s got one of the world’s greatest actors in one of his last performances. But it just never quite comes together.
The Upside: Philip Seymour Hoffman
The Downside: So ambitious that it never coheres into an effective whole; constantly feels like Slattery is being pulled in a thousand directions
On the side: There are still three more Hoffman movies yet to be released: A Most Wanted Man and The Hunger Games sequels.